The Old Perspective on the Works of the Law

Biblical studies have undergone something of a seismic shift over the past three decades. Noted scholars such as James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sander and N.T. Wright have questioned whether the theologians of the Reformation have properly understood the theological arguments of the Apostle Paul. This is especially so with regard to Paul's teaching on the meaning of justification in the letters to the Romans and Galatians. Their resounding conclusion is that Reformed and Protestant theologians have largely misunderstood Paul's argumentation concerning the nature of justification and the eschatological role of the Law in the life of believers. According to proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, justification does not--as the Reformed have always maintained--involve the imputation of Christ's righteousness by faith alone. The crux of the argument has to do with how one defines the phrase "works of the Law" (and its various related forms in Pauline literature). Without wishing to do injustice to the nuanced differences that exist in the writings of these men, I want to point out what I believe to be an important historical theological fact that has often been overlooked in recent debates: the New Perspective's supposedly new understanding of the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is nothing other than the Old Roman Catholic perspective on the phrase. 

Proponents of the New Perspective(s) have insisted that the phrase "works of the Law" does not, as the Reformers and Puritans held, refer to "a man's attempt to work for his standing before God based on his own law keeping." They contend that the phrase refers to Jewish boundary markers. In redefining it in this way, they reduce the meaning of the phrase down to nothing other than the ceremonial laws of Israel. In doing so, they radically redefine Paul's argument concerning justification--rejecting the Reformed idea that Paul was teaching that "justification is the receiving of the forgiveness of sin and a legal standing of righteous by faith alone, based on the death of Christ and the imputation of His righteousness." Instead, they assert that justification is inclusion of Jew and Gentile into the one corporate body of God's Covenant people under the Lordship of Christ. In turn, N.T. Wright teaches that there is an eschatological (i.e. future) justification based on the Spirit wrought good-works of believers. 

The Apostle Paul's argument that a man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 3:24) strikes a decisive blow to the thesis of the New Perspective, if Paul is, in fact, teaching that justification is what the Reformed taught it to be, namely, a once-for-all legal act of God. The Reformers understanding of Paul's argument radically impacted later Protestant formulations on the doctrine of justification. There is arguably no better formulation than that which we find in the Westminster Short Catechism

"Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (WSC Q. 33). 

The essence of this definition is found in Calvin's Institutes, where we read:

"We simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ" (Institutes 3.11.2).

Calvin labored tirelessly as an exegete, in dependence upon and in polemical interaction with the exegesis of those who went before him. It should come as no surprise for us to discover that Calvin paid a great deal of attention to the arguments of Roman Catholic theologians regarding Paul's arguments on justification--especially in his exegesis of Romans and Galatians. For instance, in his commentary on Galatians 2:15 Calvin wrote: 

"The first thing to be noticed is, that we must seek justification by the faith of Christ, because we cannot be justified by works. Now, the question is, what is meant by the works of the law? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly assert, that by the works of the law are meant ceremonies" (Commentary on Galatians).

Here we discover that the argument of the theologians of the New Perspective(s) on the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is merely the Old Perspective of Early and Medieval Romans Catholic theologians. Calvin continued:

"As if Paul were not reasoning about the free justification which is bestowed on us by Christ. For they see no absurdity in maintaining that no man is justified by the works of the law, and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow." 

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it would do us a world of good to turn our attention to the labors of those upon whose shoulders we stand. This includes our need to focus on their exegesis in light of the polemics in which they were engaged. As we do, we will find that many of the recent supposed advances in biblical studies are merely retorgrades back to the isogesis of Roman Catholicism from which the Reformers helped set us free.